a little structure

Wire pea fences, with supporting bamboo polesThe tempo of life has changed since Easter.  The long, deliberate, muffled days of Lent have turned into a flurry of events with friends and family, and a lot of farmwork.  In the last ten days, we've been celebrating life in many of its stages: a coming birth, a newly adopted baby, three year old twins, a sixty-fifth birthday, and a marriage.  We've installed pea fences (like a trellis), pruned back berry bushes, planted rows and rows of brassica plants, and started more than 100 tomato plants.  In all the excitement, I've found that I'm missing some of the structure that I had built into my Lenten days.

During Lent, I began each day by writing about half an hour of stream-of-consciousness "morning pages," to clear out the mental and emotional debris, to chase away those formless, lurking anxieties that somehow are so skilled at popping out at you when you least expect it.  Then, once settled, I wrote for about an hour (at least 1000 words) about my experiences with spirituality and religion, trying to piece together a narrative from my childhood through today.  

It has been like digging in the dirt, pulling out old roots and rocks, and preparing the soil to support new life.  It's been hard and uncomfortable at times.  It's caused me to look up long-lost friends and pull out old pictures.  But I've been supported in it by the little structure I created: daily practice, time limits, no censoring voices.

I realized, this morning, as I jumped from websites about the "emerging church" to podcasts on "incendiary theology" (Peter Rollins), to political blogs, to columns about the never-ending Roman Catholic clergy abuse scandal (Nicholas Kristof), to my bills and emails, and then to perusing homesteads in Western Massachusetts, that I've got to re-install my own personal trellis.  I don't want my new shoots and leaves to get drowned in a deluge.  I want to grow toward the light.  But it's so easy to forget about those little structures, to forget that without a trellis, I can get a bit wild, going off in all directions at once.  I've got to recognize that which actually supports me, and take hold, while everything is unfurling and emerging and becoming what it is and will be.

I've got a song stuck in my head since Lent--it's a Taize chant called "Watch and Pray (Stay with Me)."  It's rather dark, simple and clarifying.  You can listen to it here.  I suppose that it's a Lenten season song, given that Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray with him, in the last hours in the garden of Gethsamane.  But haunting melodies don't restrict themselves to the liturgical calendar, and the tune has been playing, low, pianissimo, in the background of my days.  Maybe that melody has been calling me back to myself, asking me to find my little internal structures, to get rooted again, to prepare and prepare for the growing that is to come.

Peas, seeds and variety

The peas we planted on March 17th are up!  Peeking under the row covers just a few days ago, we saw beautiful rows of little green plants, looking happy and hardy.

Over the next two days, the row covers were removed and pea fences were inserted in between the rows, to give the peas a trellis-like structure onto which to grow.

When we first looked under the row covers, I felt an enormous sense of relief.

You see, my job that day was to do the actual seeding of the rows--Sister Carol Bernice had raked away the mulch to create neat, orderly beds, and Sister Emmanuel and Sister Carol Bernice followed after the seeding, covering each bed with bamboo hoops and lightweight cloth row covers, to give the beds a little protection from the elements (and hopefully, from pests).  I ran around with a manual push-seeder, that has a little wheel with holes 1 inch apart, through which the peas drop out and into the soil, as you push it along.  That would seem pretty easy, right?  And it is.  But not having your fingers in the dirt means that it's harder to tell if the seeds are dropping down at the right intervals, if they are getting buried at the right depth...

And it would be one thing if this was just a hobby garden.  But it's our food, for the next year.  We still have a couple packages of peas in the freezer from last spring, and a few quarts of dry soup peas on the shelf.  These are an important crop--the shell peas, like Eclipse and Lincoln, are eaten fresh and also frozen, so we can enjoy them throughout the year.  The Amplissimo Viktoria (a dry pea, and rare variety originally from Ukraine) are left on the vine to dry as long as possible, and then shelled and packed away into quart jars, providing us protein and healthy starches throughout the winter.  We use them like a chickpea to make more than just soup, too: we've made them into hummus, falafel, and fritters, too.

So it's a little nervewracking, realizing how important these little seeds are.  In fact, one of the Sisters learned that the Amplissimo Viktoria had failed as a crop one year for many of the seed retailers, and she grabbed the one remaining jar from our kitchen just in time, to save it and send it back to the seed company.  These seeds are the manifestation of life's creativity, of the amazing diversity that surrounds and supports us.  We try to patronize a few different seed companies, in order to support as many as possible.  We order from Fedco, Johnny's, Vermont Bean, and Pinetree for seeds, and Fedco, Raintree and Miller's for trees.  And we love to get our potatoes from the Maine Potato Lady.  Next year, we're going to look at a few other seed companies dedicated only to heritage varieties, as well.  As it is, we already order many "heritage" varieties, to keep those varieties going, and for fun experimentation.  And we say little prayers, every time we plant, for the health of each individual plant--and for the longevity of those varieties in the future.

If you're planning on doing any gardening this summer, try starting them yourself from seed, or try buying "starts" (baby plants) from local independent greenhouses.  The big box stores may have plants for sale, but they're not the best in the long term.  Those of you in the Northeast may realize how hard we were hit with the "late blight," a plant disease that wiped out tomato and potato crops in the region.  The big box stores--Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's and KMart--had gotten their tomato plants from one supplier, and effectively spread the disease throughout the area.  This is where centralization of commercial activity is downright dangerous--we need more types of plants, more diversity in seeds, and more local growers and distributors to be able to withstand the emergence of a plant disease, or an unusually wet, cold, season.

Being "close to the ground"--literally and figuratively--I understand how important it is that we see the potential for life that exists in seeds.  Not just the potential for a single plant to grow and flourish, or for it to sustain us, but for it to create more seeds for planting in the future.  I want to choose varieties carefully, sow seeds carefully, and tend plants carefully.  More than just our next meal is at stake.

"chop wood, carry water"

Spending Holy Week at the farm was intense, gratifying, and challenging.  I continue to be humbled by how unfamiliar I am with Christian practices and traditions--a feeling especially uncomfortable since, as I near 40, I realize that I haven't truly been a novice at anything for quite some time.  In academia and in my work as a program director, I quickly found my footing.    Here, I stumble, get up and dust myself off, and then soon stumble again.  One of my new favorite sentences: "I don't know what that is."  Another: "What does that mean?"  And: "Can you explain it to me?"

This week, I smelled nard for the first time--nard is a fragrant and precious oil that was used by a woman identified as Mary, perhaps Mary Magdalene, to anoint Jesus, in preparation and recognition of his impending death.  And I participated in Tenebrae, an ancient practice of plainsong prayer that takes place on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of Holy Week, in the evenings.  During Tenebrae, which means "darkness," the lights are progressively extinguished until the final songs and chants are performed in the dark.  This week, I sang my first-ever solo, bursting into tears just after finishing, from the fullness of emotion carried by the music and from my overwhelming sense of imperfection.  I learned about the restoration of the story of Mary Magdalene, commonly portrayed as a prostitute, who is now understood by scholars as a prominent disciple of Jesus, and not a "fallen woman."  This Easter morning, I was awakened shortly after 4 am by the Vigilant, one of the sisters charged with waking all the others, with the words "Christ is risen," to which we responded "And has appeared unto Mary Magdalene."  Throughout this week, I've struggled to make peace with some of the common strands, and language, of the passion of Jesus that I find troublesome, to find ways to reconcile the parts that don't ring true to me.  And when I haven't been able to find peace, I've struggled against my impulse to just flee the scene, to run away, to reject it all, as I did (at least emotionally) when I was 15.

To top it off, there's been the almost daily revelations of the extent of the clergy abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church, and the Vatican's astonishing unwillingness to claim full responsibility and work towards healing.  The extent to which this institution has isolated itself, and moved so far away from the work and message of Jesus, is baffling, and infuriating.

Like I said, it's been an intense week.  There's a lot for me to digest.

I continue to take comfort in physical activity.  We've been doing a lot of planting, and carrying plants in and out of the greenhouse to "harden off."  I've been removing mulch, raking up old leaves, digging holes, carrying watering cans.  My arms and legs and back are awakening, murmuring to me, "oh yeah, I remember this . . ."  On Holy Saturday, we worked in silence, planting 150 plants (cabbage, broccoli, broccoli raab, tat soi, bok choi, and kale).  My arms and legs trembling at the end of it all.  But my mind clear, at peace.

Working hard brings me into the present moment, shushes my mind from its tendency to argue, litigate, prosecute.  When you're nurturing these little plants, you have to focus, and be careful.  They're delicate, and one unthinking move can squash and bruise a leaf, or even rip it right off.  They can be underwatered, overwatered, get too much sun.  Planting them into the soil is a bit traumatic for them, and for me . . . 

The sisters have a plaque on the entrance to chapel, a Zen proverb in Chinese characters, that reads "Chop wood, carry water" (pictured left).  The full saying is:  "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."  The idea is that doing a task with full awareness, practicing being in the world with loving-kindness, will help one reach enlightenment, that the chattering, thinking mind can be quieted through repetitive, awareness-filled work.  It's certainly been my experience that I can quiet all those jumping monkeys in my mind by getting into the work of the farm, by letting go of my compulsive overthinking, by letting go of my pride and awkwardness about being a novice, by letting go of my anger toward the incredibly flawed institutional church.  I believe that my spiritual practices--whether planting or singing or praying--are supporting my journey toward light, openness, and forgiveness.  I just have to keep chopping wood, carrying water.  It's sure better than walking around with my soul all boxed in, seething.

I've mentioned that Easter has long been my favorite holiday, that I've relished the opportunity for new beginnings.  I see that this year is not so much a new beginning, but a return.  I see that my spiritual development was largely halted around age 15, when I became overcome by anger at the church.  I was bitter about what I perceived as the church's straying from the gospel.  I was repelled by its seeming infatuation with itself as displayed through the finery, the gold, all the embellishments and pomp.  I was outraged by the apparent disengagement of many of the adults around me, who seemed to just mouth the words, impatient to leave right after communion, cutting each other off in the parking lot.  And I was stung by the hierarchy and its insistence on the subordination of women.

All this "stuff" is still with me.  I've still got to deal with it.  And so this Easter season is less like the ones past, where I felt inspired to turn the page, start over, rise up again.  This time, I'm just here, accompanied by my 15 year old self.  

So we're going to chop wood, and carry water.  What else is there to do?